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Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Mikhail Vrubel

Mikhail Vrubel's greatest masterpieces.
Those who study history, sociology, and psychology will tell us that the human organism is highly adjustable to the changing dynamics of life and the environment provided such changes come gradually over a period of at least one or two generations. Change coming too rapidly is jarring, sometimes fatally so, as in the rapid changes brought on by wars. We can say therefore that mankind adjusts to, and even welcomes, evolution but tends to resist revolution. Moreover, when forces stymie gradual progress (for whatever reason), again and again we find they are only postponing the effects of change and as a result, setting the stage for cataclysmic, jarring changes which they are ill prepared to handle. The prime example of this would be the fifty years of American history leading up to our Civil War, only to be followed by another hundred years of growing pressure for equality as to civil rights. Today, we in this country are still struggling to adjust to that revolution.

The Judgement of Paris, 1893, Mikhail Vrubel.
Another example of this evolution-revolution paradigm took place around the turn of the century in Russia. During the reign of Catherine the Great in the latter half of the 18th-century, Russia totally missed out on the Renaissance, leaping from a feudal society into the 19th century Age of Enlightenment in one bound. Much of the art in between was insignificant or a variation on the icon art of Andrei Rublev, for example, of which Russia should rightly be proud. The icon and that sense of folklore religiosity, plus the Eastern (or Orientalist) sense of the exotic continued to influence Russian art afterwards, but it was balanced by Western influences, and sometimes overwhelmed by them.
Pan, 1899, Mikhail Vrubel
Many Russian artists up until, and even after, the revolution were either of foreign extraction or spent a great deal of time in cultural centers like Paris and Rome. The international influence becomes crystal clear when a Russian impressionist work is placed next to a French one. The Internationalism we sometimes bemoan today has a very long history. Nevertheless, the Russian character, speaking from a post-postmodern context, is evident in the works of the finest Russian artists of the nineteenth century. Indeed, many formed a coalition against Western influences, aiming to capture the realism of the countryside and its people. One artist, who explored this melancholic tendency against Western influence, was Mikhail Vrubel. His art is simply extraordinary, and will take you, like the greatest in Russian literature, to depths that both educate and endanger your sensibility. His Seated Demon (top), for example, has in its color psychology and the posture of the central character something unsettling. The figure is not so demonic, it could be you or the artist, and yet there is a madness in the composition which is difficult to define. There is an unresolved tension in the muscular torso and the feminine sculpted face. The same is evident in the colors employed.

Vrubel's wife was the famous opera singer, Nadezhda Zabela.
Mikhail Vrubel was born into the family of a military lawyer. He graduated from St. Petersburg University in 1880 with a law degree, but then entered the Academy of Arts the very same year. Vrubel referred to his Academy years In his 1901 autobiography, as the happiest in his life as an artist. For that he was indebted to professor Pavel Tchistyakov, who was famous for his method of teaching painting and drawing. Among Tchistyakov’s pupils were such outstanding painters as Vasily Surikov, Viktor Vasnetsov, and Vasily Polenov all of whom thought very highly of their teacher. Vrubel owed much to the Academy and never shared the distaste towards it felt by many prominent painters of the time. Vrubel’s art, was academic in a sense, based on the cult of the model and drawing. His Academy drawings on classical subjects are striking for their elegant workmanship.

Descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles, 1885, Mikhail Vrubel
Demon (ceramic), 1894, Mikhail Vrubel
Even during his training, Vrubel was not a devoted follower of the Academy style. Along with an expressiveness and rich imagin-ation, his works, even then, reveal a taste for improvisation, frag-mentary composition, his charac-teristic “unfinished” manner pecul-iarly fused with classical style and monumentality. In 1884, Vrubel was asked to take part in the restoration of the Old Russian murals and mosaics in the 12th century Church of St. Cyril in Kiev (above). The knowledge Vrubel acquired in the process con-tributed to the development of his style as a painter. In St. Cyril’s Church, Vrubel executed new murals in place of the lost ones, The Descent of the Holy Spirit Upon the Apostles (Pentecost) and Three Angels Over the Body of Christ. Later, he was commissioned to paint icons for the iconostasis of the church, which he did in Venice where he spent several months in the years 1884-85. In Venice, Vrubel was particularly impressed by the medieval mosaics in the Church of San Marco and the Early Renaissance paintings of Giovanni Bellini and Cima da Conegliano. While in Venice Vrubel’s palette acquired strong saturated tones resembling the iridescent play of precious stones. During his time in Venice, Vrubel produced four large icons, including The Virgin and Child. He drew the face of the Virgin from the studies of E. Prakhova, wife of A. Prakhov.

The Virgin and Child, 1884, Mikhail Vrubel
The Girl Against a Persian
Carpet, 1886, Mikhail Vrubel
Back in Kiev Vrubel started to work on the first version of The Demon, an illustration to Mikhail Lermontov's 1890 poem of the same name. The Kiev versions of The Demon, both the pictures and sculptures, have not survived. In fact, Vrubel rarely took pains to preserve his works, being more interested in the process of creation than in the result. Other works of the Kiev period include the large canvas Portrait of a Girl against a Persian Carpet and The Oriental Tale dating from 1886. The latter inspired by The Arabian Nights, and Hamlet and Ophelia. During this period, Vrubel also created numerous watercolors with flowers. The murals, can-vases, and watercolors painted in Kiev have little of the Art Nouveau style, which appeared only in Vru-bel’s works of the Moscow period.

Fortune Teller, 1895, Mikhail Vrubel
The Swan Princess,
1900, Mikhail Vrubel
Vrubel tried various artistic media, including ceramics, majolica (a type of painted ceramics), stained glass, architectural masks, stage sets, costume design, and even architecture. In his search for a lucid beautiful style, his talent showed in everything he did. This search eventually cul-minated in the founding of the Russian Art Nou-veau. With its roots in Russian Neo-Romanticism, the most characteristic feature of the Russian version of this style is its cult of beauty – melancholic, enigmatic and refined. There is a tendency toward the synthesis of arts in everything, from book illustration to theater per-formance, and décor. Art Nouveau was never confined to easel painting or sculpture alone. It found its way into people’s houses becoming an essential part of interior decoration and their lives. The somewhat affected mannerism generally typical of the style, also manifested itself in Vrubel’s works of the Moscow period. Vrubel’s best Moscow works include the Fortune-Teller (above) from 1895, Lilac (below) dating from 1900, Pan from 1899, The Swan Princess, painted in 1900 as well as several portraits including The Painter’s Wife in Empire Dress, from 1898.

Lilac, 1900, Mikhail Vrubel
In 1896, Vrubel heard the opera singer Nadezhda Zabela, and fell in love with her voice immediately. After the performance they got acquainted and, half a year later, married. At the time Vrubel, being less known, was often referred to as the husband of the famous opera singer Nadezhda Zabela. They settled in Moscow, where Nadezhda began singing in Mamontov’s Private Opera. In the dwindling years of the 19th-Century, Vrubel designed dresses for his wife, both for the stage and for real life, drew stage sets, and designed costumes. Later, he resumed work on the Demon theme. In 1901, he started his large canvas Demon Downcast (lower image, top). Exhibited in 1902, the painting overwhelmed the audience and won real fame for the artist. The painting, charged with motion, is strongly decorative. Striving to improve his masterpiece, Vrubel, became increasingly unbalanced. He repainted the Demon’s face, his sinister eyes and his lips, twisted by pain numerous times. He insisted on repainting the picture even after it was on display, until he suffered the first of what would become a series of mental breakdowns.
Six-Winged Seraph (Azrael), 1904, Mikhail Vrubel.
Portrait of the Poet
Valery Briusov,
1906, Mikhail Vrubel
Having recovered, Vrubel never again revisited the Demon theme. While in the hospital, he painted a great deal from life--portraits, landscapes, still lifes, as if in the hopes of rejuvenating the faded palette of his art through the painstaking study of the real world. These works include numerous portraits of the artist's wife, a portrait of their little son, several self-portraits, and finally, his remarkable Pearl Oyster (below) from 1904 where the mystifying play of the mother-of-pearl is rendered with the virtuoso brush of the artist. Alongside these works, Vrubel produced many versions of The Prophet, inspired by the Pushkin’s famous poem of the same. In one of the versions, the Prophet’s face is actually a self-portrait while the figure of the Six-Winged Seraph (above) is apparently Azrael, the angel of death. Though not so famous as the Demon Downcast, it stands as one of Vrubel’s greatest achievements. In 1906, when Vrubel was hospitalized in a mental clinic, he continued to make studies for the Prophet and even his rapidly developing blindness did not keep him from his art. At the same time, Vrubel executed the Portrait of the Poet Valery Briusov (above), destined to be his last work. During the last four years of his life, Vrubel's mental episodes became more frequent and greater in duration. Though the true cause of his illness is unknown, it is speculated that he suffered from porphyria (a disease affecting the skin and nervous system. He died in April, 1910, at the age of fifty-four.

Pearl Oyster, 1906, Mikhail Vrubel
Fine Arts Museum in Vrubel's native city
of Omsk is named after him.


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